When she returned to the hotel, she sat on the bed and pulled out her current notebook and its two predecessors. For as long as she could remember, she had been a notebook fiend. While other children scrawled drawings across pads of paper or abandoned their works of art, Zelda had immediately seen the potential of bound paper. What other medium could contain all her thoughts and pictures and dreams in one place? When she filled her first drawing pad, she had wept until it was replaced. As she graduated from crayons to pens she began to write more than draw. Tall, wobbly lines careened across the blank pages. The year her teachers first required lined notebooks for handwriting practice changed her life.
She had been a diarist ever since. Her heroes were historical and fictional, from the Caesars to Emmaline The Sleuth, whose book was Zelda's favorite all through her youth. She devoured books well beyond her reading level, determinedly absorbing as much of their lives as she could. Life was the essence of every diary. She loved the power good writers had to evoke the time and place in which they lived, sending her on ocean voyages or hiding in besieged towns.
Her dedication to writing every day transferred well to her schoolwork. At thirteen, she went through a phase where she fancied herself a stenographer. Her goal was to record everything exactly as she heard, saw, and lived it. For a month she followed at her mother's heels, taking down everything Cecilia said and did. That hadn't ended well, but her mother's indignation only fueled Zelda's passion for recording what went on around her.
Journalism was a natural extension. She worked on the school papers, where she learned to write for people besides herself. Soon she had multiple notebooks. There were books for her class notes (with copious extra details squeezed into the margins), there was the journal she maintained for her journalism studies, and her personal diary was kept under lock and key. It had to be, or the girls in her dormitory would see all her innermost thoughts, and Emmeline the Sleuth's story would be a wasted lesson.
Over time, the personal diary had been abandoned as work ate up all of Zelda's time. The result was a series of notebooks that contained every scrap of information she had ever found in connection with her work. She poured over these now, looking for any reference to the Protectores.
Of course, she had had a few close calls with them before. It was impossible not to, in her line of work. Where the Emperor went, his Protectores went first, to secure the area. They stayed until he left, and they shadowed his family as well. In the past, various RAP reporters had made contact with individuals in the Protectores and formed working relationships. Zelda hadn't been so lucky. She'd also seen them brutally take down a man who threw a balled up food wrapper at the Empress during a parade. Since then, she'd stayed clear.
As she turned the pages, her mind churned. What was a Protector doing here in "the backwaters of Lower Germania for no good reason"? Zoë had made it clear long ago that she didn't like to travel with guards. Zelda had assumed she was here without her parents' blessing, but perhaps that was wrong. Only they could have sent Biernevich after her. It was like sending a tornado in to do the job of a ceiling fan. Memory of the incident with the Empress sent an old chill up her spine. The man's jaw had been broken.
Her eye caught and held something and she paused to read the page. It was a list of the Protectores present at a function given by the Imperial family. Biernevich was among them. She backed up a few pages and read the related entries from their beginning. Over two years ago the royals had thrown an open house for Roma's elite to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Zelda had wormed her way into the outer-party, held in the gardens beyond the inner sanctum, where a lower echelon of guests could feel important. After making sure that Zoë had not snuck out to the garden yet—as she had been known to do in the past—Zelda set about doing some research. She found a rather tipsy young woman who swore she had slept with half the guards, and it hadn't been hard to get her to name names. For Zelda's part, it didn't matter if the girl was exaggerating, as long as she got names. They party had ultimately been uneventful, but the notes survived in the notebook.
To her annoyance, that appeared to be the only time she had ever written down his name. She felt certain that if she had ever had any sort of direct interaction with the man she would remember it—she wouldn't forget the way he had loomed over her the night before, that was certain. But in a lineup of Protectores, it was difficult to tell one from another. These were men among men, likened to Olympians, both mortal and divine. Some women liked that sort of thing; there were dozens of bestselling romances starring fiercely loyal Protectores defending their women. Plenty of action heroes, as well. The deeds of the best were legend handed down through the centuries. But in Zelda's mind, they were all interchangeable: all tall, muscled, hard, and deadly.
Interesting to find one who also had eyes like a stormy sky.
Zelda rubbed her hands together to warm them and rang the front desk to ask for tea.
She spent the next day in and out of Mattium's dining and drinking establishments. She had only been in town for a week, and she had now been to them all. And her notebook was filling with observations. The Goldweizenhaus was not the only bar in town to serve Roman soldiers. The veterans and officers had their favorite as well, and she spent her evening with them. This time she had prey in mind.
You didn't become a Protector without military experience. Ergo, Biernevich had to have spent several years in the army. It wasn't terribly likely, but she was going to bank her return train ticket on it that someone in Mattium, someone in Germania, must know him. And the vets were the most likely. The officers had to know he was in town, and who he was guarding. And someone had to talk to her.
She found her target alone at the bar, drinking. He was on the hard liquor, not beer. Whether it was the alcohol or just a rough life, he looked to be in his late thirties. If he wasn't a veteran and an officer, he wouldn't have been deployed. Zelda took a stool a little way down the bar and ordered herself a red wine, not intending to drink much of it. She watched him from the corner of her eye, but he just drank steadily.
"Long day?" she asked.
He glanced up, but didn't flinch. Or react positively. Hmph, you'd think an old-timer would be pleased to be chatted up by a pretty young blonde. "Twenty-four hours, just like the last one."
She smiled, accepting her glass of wine. "How long have you been in Germania?"
"I arrived just a little while ago…seems like forever, though." Nothing. Zelda considered her next move. "You wouldn't happen to know an Oron Biernevich, would you?"
The man's eyes darted to her, she had his attention. "I think there's only one of those running around."
"I suspect they broke the mold, yes."
"Listen, puella, I'm not buddies with him so if you're looking for a date, it's not going to be through me."
Her eyebrows rose. "A date? No, no—that's not what I'm looking for at all." She gathered her things and moved closer. "I just want to know a bit more about him. That's all. Like… why is he here?"
The man studiously avoided her gaze. "A man can go where he likes."
"Not a man in the Emperor's service," she said quietly.
This time he put the tumbler down and turned to her. "I don't talk for free."
Zelda blinked. A bribe? Truly? She couldn't believe the luck! "What's your rate?"
"You can start with a drink."
"All right." She flagged down the bartender and waited while another whiskey was poured. Her source drank it down, perfectly relaxed. "What is he doing in Germania, now?"
"That is classified. Try again."
"I bought you a drink, you owe me an answer."
"I owe you an answer to the right sort of question. What are you, new at this?"
Irritation rose. Fine, she knew already knew why Oron was in Germania. "Why is he away from the rest of his unit? PINs stick to the Emperor like glue."
"Ah, that… I don't know the whole story, but I know enough. He pissed someone off. Someone important. My guess is this is his punishment."
She had to stop herself from laughing out loud. Zoë, a punishment? Frozen Germania? Sounded like torture to her! "Know where I can find him?"
The veteran mulled over his answer, taking another sip of his drink. At last he reached into his pocket and slid something across the bar to her. "I don't, but they might. Thanks for the drink, domina. For future reference, my favorite is double malt." He walked off to a table full of officers, ending the interview.
Zelda picked up what he had given her and blinked at it. A matchbook? The front was illustrated with a glowing pipe, and nearly all the matches were gone. The back had an address and a coupon. Furtively, she snuck out her dictionary and began translating the message. She checked her result three times before accepting it.
Why was he sending her to a tobacconist?